The Birth of a Nation - Racism, Ethics and Leadership
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
- Being the first big budget Hollywood silent movie.
- Racism - the film's heroes are the Ku Klux Klan, who terrorized
and killed African Americans (who in the film are inferior and played by white people with black faces).
- Inspiring a revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920's.
Set during and after...
The American Civil War in which the North (the Union side) led by the president,
Abraham Lincoln (pictured right), fought the
South (the Confederates) over the abolition of slavery.
Thomas Dixon’s (pictured right) novel, The Clansman.
D.W. Griffith (pictured right).
None (the Oscars started in 1929).
Elsie Stoneman (Lilian Gish, then a movie superstar), a beautiful young lady from
Washington in the North (pictured right).
Ben Cameron (Henry Walthal), colonel in the Confederate army from Piedmont, South
Carolina, and founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Stonemans, a Northern family, become friendly with the Camerons from
South Carolina in the South, where African Americans are slaves.
Ben Cameron falls for Elsie Stoneman (the daughter of the
abolitionist leader, Austin Stoneman) just before the outbreak of the American Civil
(Ben and Elsie are pictured right together).
Ben, with his brothers, Wade and Duke, join the Confederate army and
Elsie’s brothers, Phil (in love with Ben's sister, Margaret) and
Tod, join the Unionists on the North’s side.
Duke and Tod die in each other’s arms on the battlefield and Wade is killed in Atlanta. The film shows the
Unionist army as the villains, destroying Georgia and ransacking the Camerons’ house.
Ben and Phil meet in battle. Ben is heroic (saving an enemy soldier) and taken to a Unionist hospital, where he
meets Elsie, a nurse.
On hearing a personal appeal from Elsie’s mother, President
Lincoln pardons Ben of a false charge of spying and so saves him from execution.
After the war, Ben returns to his destroyed home and greatly mourns Lincoln’s assassination.
But he hates Lincoln's pro-black replacement, Austin Stoneman.
His half-black deputy, Silas Lynch, is attracted to Elsie and organizes a vengeful
rebellion of former slaves against the whites.
The Cameron and Stoneman families are now drifting apart because of the war’s bitter memories.
Looting by blacks and their state election victory prompt Ben to form the Ku Klux
Klan to fight the “black supremacy” of the African American government, led by Lynch.
Blacks are thrilled with their new equal rights.
Elsie is so upset by Ben's racism that she ends their engagement. He leads thousands of the Klan against
A black officer and ex-slave, Gus, chases Ben’s sister, Flora, who refuses to
marry or even touch him (despite his assurances that he won’t harm her).
Gus chases her to a cliff edge and Flora falls off, dying shortly after in Ben’s arms. The Klan
capture Gus (pictured right), lynch him and dump his body at Lynch’s door.
Lynch’s men (including whites) seek revenge against the Klan, and Ben’s father, his sister
(Margaret) and Elsie’s brother (Phil) flee to a country cabin.
Elsie asks Lynch to help them, but he tries to force her to marry him, promising to make her queen of
his “Black Empire”. Her hypocritical father is appalled by the idea, even though he is lusting after his black
The Klan rescue Elsie from Lynch and everyone at the cabin. At the next election blacks are
disenfranchized (through intimidation by the Klan) and a white government exploits and
Elsie marries Ben, despite her misgivings about the Klan. Phil also marries Margaret.
Lessons for racism, ethics and leadership
1. Racism is wrong
The film’s racism shows that the civil war didn’t give African Americans:
- equality with whites (despite the abolition of slavery).
- peace (blacks continued to be threatened by fear and violence, particularly from the Ku
The Ku Klux Klan kills Gus, whose only crime is to love a white woman.
2. The power of propaganda
The false portrayal of the blacks and abolitionists shows how the cinema can be used to mislead people.
The heroes are the Ku Klux Klan (pictured right in 1922) but they are evil
3. War is wicked
The Civil War:
- turns Ben (pictured right in battle) from a kind, genteel man (saving an enemy soldier)
into the racist founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
- strains the friendship between the Stoneman and Cameron families.
Elsie’s purity and beauty contrast with the horrors of war.
4. Life is full of painful choices
Elsie chooses Ben, even though she hates his racism and the Ku Klux Klan.
5. Hypocrisy is horrible
Elsie’s father is appalled by her possible marriage to Lynch, but this doesn’t stop him lusting after his black
6. We need great leaders
- unites the North and South (by being moral, fair and magnanimous).
- saves Ben from a false spying charge.
Key quote on war
War, the breeder of hate (film caption).
Two film websites to recommend
1. filmsite.org (run by Tim Dirks).
2. aveleyman.com (run by Tony Sullivan)